Forty-two points remain available for Villarreal, who currently sit on 41, fourth in La Liga. Both Real Madrid and Sevilla found victory today, which means that to keep pace with the race for the Champions League, Villarreal must continue to pull in all available points. A trip to Estadio Manuel Ruiz de Lopera stands in the way of picking up three tomorrow.
Villarreal have not won away from El Madrigal in three months, last achieving victory November 30th against Recre. But we seem to have found a bit of kick again, having won two of our last three Liga matches. Although a victory was not to be midweek, a victory was deserved, and Villarreal will be confident heading into the away leg against Pana.
Betis have been riding high - but things took an ugly turn last week. Real Betis managed to churn through the first couple of legs of the "gauntlet", beating city rivals Sevilla in the Sanchez Pizjuan, then managing a draw away to seemingly unstoppable Barcelona. This past weekend, however, things came crashing down around them, and they fell 6-1 in the Bernabeu. They will not be happy tomorrow, and I fully expect for them to try and take a lot of their anger out on the Yellow Submarine.
Unfortunately for Betis, they will be without their scoring leader Emaná, who is out with a virus. While that is bad news for the Sevillans, it is a welcome note for our beleagured troops in the back line. In addition to the ongoing recovery plan for Gonzalo, Angel was kept off the list of 19 at the last moment, as he had a left leg muscle strain. Capdevila, although managed to put in a game last week, is finally back at full strength, giving the left side some much-needed relief.
This should be an excellent preparatory match for the second leg of the Champions League tie with Panathinaikos. Each are, at this point, equally important, but the consequences of failure in Greece will be much more quickly evident if it occurs. Villarreal have managed to put together beautiful football again. What had been gone for months has now finally begun to come out of the shadows again; it has been like our style of play is afraid of winter. The problem is, we have not been consistently finding the back of the net. Bepe Rossi has been golden, but Llorente has not regained his form since his injury, and Nihat, although having less time than Llorente, has not made a dent on a match yet (unless you count that wicked free kick he took last week where it is quite possible he actually dented the crossbar!). We have to begin to score with consistency. We are too good, too fluid to have to worry about when we are going to find a goal to eek by with a one-goal victory. Now is the time that players like Nihat, Llorente, Ibagaza, and others step up their aggressiveness. Scoring away is difficult - but we have to do it tomorrow, and in Greece.
Villarreal's call for the match includes:
Keepers: Diego López and Viera.
Defenders: Javi Venta, Godin, Fuentes, Cygan and Capdevila.
Midfielders: Marcos Senna, Cani, Eguren, Santi Cazorla, Ibagaza, Pires, Mati Fernández and Bruno.
Forwards: Nihat, Rossi, Llorente and Guille Franco.
Pellegrini seemed to suggest midweek that he would continue to rotate his starters. I think he might try to light a fire under Nihat, and will give him the start. I am a little concerned about Fuentes' energy level - having played Saturday and Wednesday - but with only Cygan as a backup, it looks like he will get the call again. The way Cani, Ibagaza, and Pires have been playing, it will be difficult to sit any of them out. But I think Bruno might get the call, and I would be surprised if Bruno was the only holding midfielder Pellegrini used. So, Ibagaza having gotten the start Wednesday, I see Pires back in the starting lineup.
Javi Venta - Fuentes - Godin - Capdevila
Cani - Marcos Senna - Bruno - Pires
Nihat - Rossi
Admittedly, that lineup is going a bit out on a limb - I do not think Pellegrini has called that particular group all year. But I think Cani has earned it, and Senna has been back as of late. It could be a very strong group (but of course, I am always wrong by at least a couple of players!). So, I will not give anything like the 4-0 prediction I gave last week (although it could have been, if we did not decide to let them score inside of 30 seconds), but I expect Villarreal to win. We probably cannot keep at least one of their strikers out of the net (Sergio Garcia has been playing well), but I expect that sooner or later, the goals will start coming. So I won't back down this week. I am calling for a 1-3 victory for El Submarino, with Nihat getting back in it. Endavant!